Naked Nobility

by Craig Stark

#104, 24 September 2007

An Interview with Sally MacKenzie

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Until this summer, I'd never read a romance novel. No doubt I could've survived another 58 years without reading one, but I would've missed something special - someone special. What brought this about had nothing to do with the romance genre at all. In the process of researching hypermoderns for BookThink's current Gold Edition series, I came across a book that was displaying unusual behavior in the marketplace. And it just happened to be a romance novel.

The Naked Duke, a debut novel by Maryland author Sally MacKenzie, was published in February, 2005 - like most romance novels, in MMPB (mass market paperback) format - at a friendly cover price of $3.99. Approximately 45,000 copies were printed (no small number). So far, so good. Now, speaking as a bookseller, I would've expected to see prices for used copies drop fairly quickly throughout the remainder of 2005 and probably settle in at something well under a buck thereafter, perhaps even under a dime on Amazon. It happens to almost all books, after all, even those penned by best selling authors - maybe especially those.

Instead, at the time of this writing, there are 31 copies available on Amazon with prices ranging from $3.60 to $27.00. Its sales ranking is a respectable 170,951, and in recent months it's spent more time in 5-figure ranking territory than not. Its sales history on eBay mirrors what's happening on Amazon: The average eBay sales price over the past 90 days - and keep in mind that these were books that actually sold and in most cases attracted multiple bids - was $10.35, and one enthusiastic bidder coughed up $36 for a copy! One more point - until a second printing was issued recently, the publisher was out of stock.

True, we're not talking big, big values here, but it's the comparative behavior of books like these that I find intriguing, not to mention instructive. Give this book a few years, and who knows? First printings of The Naked Duke may command even higher values. Add a signature, and we might be well into QMR land. Historically, romance collectors more often collect for content than edition state, but I have it on good authority that this is changing because the overall quality of romance writing has advanced in recent years; in some cases, romances have also moved above and beyond previous genre boundaries.

It's a fundamental bookselling truth that few hard core genre novels ever become intensely collectible for edition state unless they transcend their genres - that is, display qualities that have broader appeal. Going in, I didn't know if The Naked Duke had been attracting crossover interest or if it was more a matter of readers discovering her later books, liking them, and returning to the book that launched the series to see what they'd missed. Or something else altogether. In any case, it was worth finding out what was going on, and I asked Sally MacKenzie if she'd do an interview with us. If nothing else, I thought that I'd gain a deeper understanding of the romance genre - hardly my strong suit - and have good reason to read my first romance novel.

As I read The Naked Duke, I was surprised on a number of counts; maybe I had no business going in with expectations, but I'm not sure this can be avoided. (These points are addressed in detail in the following interview.) As for the book itself, I'm reluctant to evaluate it as a romance novel because I can bring no previous experience with this genre to the table. However, I will say that I found it remarkably well written and a distinct pleasure to read; I'll be surprised if BookThink's romance aficionados don't agree. Sally herself is an articulate, thoughtful woman with much of value to say about books and writing. I like her chances for succeeding in a bigger way than she already has.

BOOKTHINK: Your three books to date - The Naked Duke, The Naked Marquis and The Naked Earl - are categorized, if I'm not mistaken, as Regency romances. I'm aware that one of the criteria for inclusion in this category is that the story be set in the English Regency era - a period in the early 1800s sandwiched between the Georgian and Victorian eras. Apart from this chronological necessity, however, what are the other elements that typically factor in making a Regency a Regency?

MACKENZIE: I'm not an expert by any means, but here's my take on this: Technically, the Regency covers the years that England was ruled by the Prince Regent (nicknamed Prinny, the Regent became King George IV in 1820) while King George III was mad - 1811-1820. However, before Romance Writers of America revised its Golden Heart contest categories, the Best Regency Romance category said the Regency period was typically the years 1795-1840. (The new category definition says merely that Regency historicals are "[r]omance novels in which the majority of the story is set against the Regency period of the British Empire.") That's a broad time span with a lot of changes from the beginning to the end of the period.

BOOKTHINK: So what is it about the Regency era that so intrigues romance readers?

MACKENZIE: Some writers use the various political and civic events of the time - the Enclosure Acts, Corn Laws, Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo occurred in 1815), trade and colonization (East India Company), smuggling, etc. - to fuel their plots, and some readers may be attracted to these novels for those plots and the historical detail these writers supply. However, this isn't what attracts me to the Regency.

The kinds of Regencies I like to read and try to write are the comedy of manners stories. The focus is on the romance (or romances) and the character interactions - hero with heroine, hero/heroine with family, hero/heroine with society. Society - the ton - with its rules and pecking order is very much a force in the story. Wit and language - the Regency period had some wonderful words and expressions - are important parts of the pleasure of Regency novels as well.

I think another attraction for me is the opportunity to inhabit a different, yet familiar world. There are a number of favorite plot conventions - marriage of convenience stories (a couple - complete strangers, long time enemies, old friends, the combination is endless - marry and then fall in love), "chick in pants" - as I think one review site calls them - stories (a woman masquerades as a man), rake reformed stories (a bad boy is redeemed by love), etc. I write - and read - Regencies not so much to come up with a new plot, but to make old plots new, to give favorite conventions a new twist.

Okay, and I'll also admit it's fun to write about mostly wealthy, powerful people with big houses and lots of servants whose main goal is to find a spouse and procreate! What's not to like about that?

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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